Many people think that because South Korea is not a closed-off dictatorship like their estranged sibling to the North, that there’s not much we don’t already know about the country. In reality, South Korea has built a unique culture since gaining their independence in the ’50s.
While all countries have their quirks, visiting South Korea can come as a complete culture shock to foreigners. From the way they celebrate Valentine’s Day to their obsession with K-POP, read on and discover all the strange things that are totally normal in South Korea.
Cosmetic Surgery Is No Big Deal There
While cosmetic surgeries are popular in North America, they still have a stigma surrounding it, so often times people keep their procedures a secret. In South Korea, it’s the exact opposite. The country is the largest market for cosmetic surgeries in the entire world. Surveys have shown that one-third of South Korean women have undergone surgery.
One of the most popular is “double eyelid surgery” which makes give South Korean women a more “western” eye look. Parents will even gift the surgery to their daughters for their sweet sixteen.
There’s A Common Fear Of Dying By Electric Fan
South Koreans are unique in their fear that sleeping with an electric fan on in your bedroom will result in certain death. Scientists have tried long and hard to debunk the urban legend but South Korea just keep reviving it.
Theories in South Korea on why fans result in death vary from the fan blades chopping oxygen molecules in half, to people freezing to death because it gets too cold. The South Korean government has even issued warnings over electric fans.
It’s The Breakdancing Capital Of The World
The South Korean love of breakdancing all began in the 1990s. American soldiers introduced the dancing style to South Korea through television broadcasts. It quickly caught on with South Korean youth, and by 2002 a Korean breakdance group won the International B-boy competition.
Since then, breakdancing has been encouraged by the South Korean government. Many parents support it to because they see breakdancing as a way for kids to perfect a highly refined skill.
South Koreans Have Two Ages
In South Korea, babies are considered to be one year old when they are born because they are experiencing their first year alive. Everyone in Korea ages at the Lunar New Year in February. That means you can have your Western birthday in January, then age another year on your Korean birthday in February.
While they acknowledge the Western style of tracking birthdays, you’ll often see Korean celebrities complaining about aging another year on the Lunar new year, not their real birthday.
They Lead The World In Men’s Cosmetics Sales
South Korean men love to wear makeup and have no shame about it. Many Western men have associated makeup with being feminine but South Korean men don’t suffer from that same fragile masculinity. They lead the world by spending more than $900 million USD per year on makeup.
Surveys have shown that more than 20% of South Korean men use makeup on a daily basis. It’s not surprising to see makeup advertisements in South Korea targeting men either.
Honey Butter Chips Are The "It" Thing
Honey Butter Chips are flavored potato chips that are imported directly from France. Shops in South Korea run out so fast that often times, raffles are held for them and they can sell for up to $100 USD for a single bag on eBay.
McDonald’s even hopped on the trend and sold honey butter-flavored fries for a while. It’s hard to think of a food that creates as much competition in America as Honey Butter Chips do in South Korea.
Tattoos Are Semi-Illegal In South Korea
Tattooing has a long and complex history in South Korea. For a long time having a tattoo is a sign that you’re a criminal, gangster, or delinquent. Tattooing is technically illegal but is not punished. Even semi-permanent tattoos are frowned upon and considered dangerous for your skin.
Over time, rates of disapproval for tattoos have gone down. While tattooing used to be connected to violence, more youth see it as something chic.
Get Ready For K-POP
There’s no way to escape the power and hold of K-POP in South Korea. The musical phenomenon is an entire industry in the country. It can be traced back to the ’90s with a pop group.
The men and women in K-POP train for years to become the perfect singers, dancers, and role models. The agency will spend up to $3 million USD training a K-POP performer to South Korean standards.
Fried Chicken Is The Most Popular Fast Food
Fried chicken is so popular in South Korea that the number of restaurants in the country outnumber McDonald’s restaurants worldwide. In 2013, South Korea estimated that there are over 38,000 fried chicken restaurants in the country. Meanwhile, McDonald’s only has around 37,000 globally.
Their love of fried chicken dates back to the Asian financial crisis of the 1990s. Many people lost their jobs and opened up small restaurants serving what was cheapest to order and make.
The Cinderella Law Regulated Video Game Time
South Korea estimates that 14% of kids have an internet and video game addiction. To combat this, South Korea introduced a law in 2011 that bans kids under the age of sixteen from playing games between midnight and 6 a.m.
It doesn’t seem to have slowed down their love of gaming though. Video games are so big that the online multiplayer game StarCraft can even be a legitimate career there.
Online Cheat Codes Are Criminal
This law isn’t that surprising now that we know just how big a deal video games are. Still, the South Korean government has gotten involved with stopping cheating in video games. It is illegal to create OR use a cheat code.
That even includes creating a code for modifying anything about a video game. If you are found guilty of this, you could face up to five years in jail or a $43,000 USD fine.
Internet Explorer Is Your Only Option For Shopping
South Korea passed a law in 1999 that requires any online shopping or banking to be done on the ancient browser and that law is still in place today.
While in Western countries, Internet Explorer is usually seen as slow, malfunctioning, and the browser your parents use. In South Korea, it is a necessity for people of any age if you want to do online shopping. Bill Gates probably loves South Korea for keeping Internet Explorer alive.
Your Blood Type Can Determine Your Love Life
An age-old practice in South Korea is classifying people by the blood types. You’re automatically classified at birth because Koreans believe your blood type is related to personality traits. Often on first dates, people will ask you what your blood type is to see if you’re compatible.
Even though other scientists have denied the connection, South Koreans research the belief heavily. There are books and articles published about the “science.”
Only A Visually Impaired Person Can Become A Masseuse
This tradition dates back to 1912 when Japan controlled Korea. The law was intended to make sure that the blind could be guaranteed a livelihood but it also allows for more privacy and intimacy during the massage.
In recent years, people in South Korea have tried to change the laws citing it to be discriminatory. The law is upheld and if you are found to be an unimpaired and unlicensed masseuse, you will be fined thousands of dollars.
Valentine’s Day Is All About The Men
In South Korea, men expect to be showered with love and gifts on February 14. This is practically the opposite to what Valentine’s Day has become in America. That’s because South Korea has multiple romantic days.
March 14 is White Day, which is when Valentine’s Day gets flipped and men surprise women with gifts. Then April 14 is Black Day, which is where single people visit their local restaurants and eat jjajyangmyeon, or "black noodles."
Subway Pushers Will Get You Where You Need To Go
Every once in a while an image will make the rounds on the internet of a person wearing a uniform and white gloves pushing people into a tightly packed subway car. These professionals work in the busy cities of South Korea and are literally called “Subway Pushers.”
During rush hour, you’re expected to line up, walk to the right, not talk, and pack yourselves in for the journey. The subway lines are so busy that South Koreans joking refer to them as “Hell Train.”
Love Motels Aren’t Taboo At All
While checking in for an hour at a love motel would be super awkward in America, it’s no big deal in South Korea. Public displays of affection are considered to be inappropriate. Many young couples will check into a motel by the hour, or even go for a night away from their parents.
The love motels aren’t as sketchy as you’d think. They’re clean, spacious, and have become a popular place to stay in South Korea for tourists on a budget.
They Celebrate Christmas In A Different Way
Thanks to colonialism, one-third of South Koreans are Christian. That means Christmas is a nationally observed holiday in South Korea. Santa Claus is a little different though. They call him "Santa Grandfather" and he might be dressed in red or blue.
South Korea still decorates with lights and exchange gifts. The most popular gift is money which we wouldn’t complain about! It’s also common to get an ice cream cake from a shop for Christmas dinner.
Drink Wherever You Want, Whenever You Want
South Korea has some of the most relaxed drinking laws around the globe. It is perfectly legal there to drink alcohol in public whether you purchased it privately or from a bar. Many people will walk around drinking beers in open carry containers without blinking an eye.
The only time it becomes illegal is when a drinker harms someone while drinking in public. Be warned though, "harm" can mean anything from physical assault to using foul language or making loud noises.
Wedding Guests Are Often Rented
Over the last few decades, the size and scope of your wedding in South Korea have come to demonstrate your social status. There are two types of weddings in South Korea—love marriages and arranged marriages. Both require an elaborate production that parents and family members chip in for.
Renting wedding guests can cost around $20 per person and can do the obvious of making you seem much more popular than you might actually be.
They Have A—Erm—Erotic Park
One of South Korea’s most visited parks is Haesindang Park, which Western tourists commonly call “Penis Park.” That’s because you guessed it, it’s full of phallic statues and art. The statues are three-meter tall trunks of wood that have been carved by multiple artists. Apparently, it is for “joy, spirituality, and sexuality.”
If you go, you can follow the path of the statues and visit the penis-themed restaurant because at that point, why not?
Crime Scene Reenactments Are A Spectator Sport
Police everywhere around the world will often recreate a crime scene or walk through the details of a crime, but in South Korea, it’s all out in the open. While police elsewhere will close off a crime scene to the public, in South Korea, it’s totally open for anyone to watch.
You’ll often see news channels featuring the crime recreation for ratings. People just love tuning in to watch a masked police officer fight through crowds of photographers to retrace a criminal’s steps.
They’re Obsessed With Poop
If you want to get a laugh out of someone in South Korea all you have to do is bring up poop. Seriously! Shops around the country will have everything from poop-shaped cookies to feces phone charms and cases.
The poop emoji is also huge in South Korea. There just seems to be something charming about a perfect, adorable piece of poop. School children will often even doodle the perfect poop on their notebooks!
The Number Four Is Unlucky
Step aside, number 13, you’ve been replaced with number 4. In South Korea, the number four is associated with death.This superstition is actually common in most East Asian countries and is believed to have originated in China.
Older buildings in South Korea are rarely taller than three stories because building a fourth would be unlucky. Also, similar to 13 in North America, you won’t find a fourth floor in a high rise building. They skip straight from 3 to 5.
Red Ink Is A Bad Omen
This superstition goes back thousands of years in South Korea but is still upheld today. While it’s okay to write casually in red ink, to write down someone’s name in that red ink means that the person will die or might already be dead.
Yes, it’s just a superstition, but it can be considered inappropriate. If you’re a teacher who loves to mark in red pen, just be sure to purge your pen collection before traveling to South Korea.
There Are Basically No Rules Of The Road
Yes, South Korea technically has driving laws, but they’re not even close to as strict as in the United States or Europe. Red lights and sidewalks mean absolutely nothing in the big cities of South Korea. Only the nicest cars on the road follow the rules so as not to bang up their vehicle.
Also, when it comes to parking, there are basically no rules. If you can find a spot and your car fits, then you’re free to stay.
South Koreans Work Hard And Don’t Sleep
The average South Korean clocks into work 55 hours a week. That’s extremely high in comparison to the average 41 hours per week that Americans work. Working hard can seem like a way to measure success.
With all that work it also means that South Koreans top the world with lack of sleep. The average South Korean only sleeps 5 hours a night. Imagine how you’d do during the week working 55 hours and only sleeping 35 hours.
Adoption Is Highly Frowned Upon
Adopting a child in South Korea is a huge form of social stigma. Most families don’t even consider doing it because it could tarnish their social status. Those who take the chance and do so are suggested to wear maternity pillows under their clothes for nine months in order to make it seem like the child is theirs.
Due to this stigma, South Korean children have the lowest adoption rate unless it is by a foreigner.
Samsung Is Worth 20% Of South Korea
While we only know the tech giant for their electronics, Samsung is everywhere in South Korea. The company owns apartment buildings, gas stations, medical centers, and universities. South Koreans can even have their funeral service at a Samsung funeral parlor.
The large, family-owned company is so powerful in South Korea that it has ties to the political leaders and tons of political scandals. While you might think that would make them disliked, many South Koreans love Samsung because they believe the company kept their economy alive for the last 40 years.
Same-Sex Touching Helps Develop A Connection
In America, if you saw two men or women walking down the street holding hands you’d assume they were a couple. In South Korea, touching each other no matter what gender is seen as a way to build and deepen any type of connection.
That’s why it’s common to see friends, coworkers, and family members sharing drinks, walking with their arms linkers, playing with their hair, or even cuddling on a bench.